Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
I’m never sure how I feel about Oliver Stone, and he seems to be a polarizing filmmaker for many people. His particular style of storytelling grates on me, and I think he slips into maudlin melodrama and absurdity way too quickly. There seems to be a lack of cleverness or subtlety in his work. I believe early pictures like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are okay. I have never really been able to get my head around Natural Born Killers. His George W. Bush film was a complete disappointment for me. I think JFK is probably his best work because the paranoid conspiracy focus matches Stone’s manner of directing best. Then we come to Nixon, his three hour plus presidential epic.
During the Watergate investigation, it became clear that a considerable portion of the audio was missing from Nixon’s Oval Office recordings. The film opens on a stormy night in 1973, as the president (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is in his darkest hour, the walls closing in, and many of his allies turning on him. He has the tapes brought to him and begins listening, which takes him through a flood of memories. The audience sees his childhood in fragmented pieces, his rise and fall, and rise again in electoral politics and all the machinations of his administration in regards to Vietnam and the civil unrest in America.
The most unexpected aspect of this film is that I developed sympathy for Richard Nixon. There have been many comparisons made between Nixon and Trump, and while there is similar desperation they share, Nixon is more a pathetically intelligent figure as opposed to the current president’s arrogant stupidity. Nixon is merely following the way of things that he’s been taught his whole life as being right but comes to power at a time when society is transforming, and all those norms have gone out the window. If he had a greater resolve and confidence, he might have been able to pivot and reinvent himself; instead, he wallows in self-pity and resorts to criminality as a means to maintain his leadership.
Nixon was further to the Left than many contemporary Democrats, but he was no leftist by any means. He solidly believed in military power and never hesitated to use the intelligence community to his advantage against domestic enemies. However, he made it a focus of his administration to seek peace with the Soviets and the Chinese. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency and drew a lot of flack from corporations at the time. But this doesn’t mean Nixon is heroic or admirable, Stone consistently presents the man as a sweating, paranoid, sack of neuroses. I don’t think Nixon was our worst president, but he was most definitely our most complicated and pathetic.
I appreciated Stone’s use of mass media to tell the story of Nixon. Several newsreel segments comment on current events and then become summaries of periods of Nixon’s life and career. Stone also incorporates file footage of news reports from the time and Watergate congressional hearings. I was a little put off by John Williams’ score at the start of the film and Gothic framing of the stormy night at the White House. As the film went on, I realized Stone had basically remade Citizen Kane but about Nixon. There are the tragic childhood moments that give root to his psychological torment. We have public humiliations that lead to a rolling breakdown. The opening sequence feels like our entry into Xanadu on the night when Charles Foster Kane passes muttering “Rosebud.” It is an interesting, if ostentatious framework to tell the story of Nixon.
I can’t say I loved Nixon, and at this point, I don’t think I’ll ever find an Oliver Stone picture I adore. I can appreciate the construction of Nixon and the performance of Anthony Hopkins, who isn’t so much becoming the former president but an interpretation of the disgraced man. The over three-hour runtime is incredibly daunting, though, and you may need to watch this film in pieces to fully absorb each act.